In concert: The Drums (Toronto; April 27, 2012)

Cocksure flair’s a big part of The Drums’ appeal, but historically their gigs’ve been real head-scratchers. The original lineup’s instrumental chops were basic to the point of paint-by-numbers record replication, and leader Jonny Pierce’s ongoing throat issues forced one of rock’s weirder Plan B’s: a lower register croon not that far removed from Bill Murray’s infamous SNL lounge douche. If you weren’t clued-in to band history you might’ve wondered if you’d been punk’d.

So, the big news in the state of The Drums c. spring 2012 is they’ve morphed into an awfully good live combo. New ballgame. The grandiose-yet-ramshackle studio versions might win your head, but the fleshier live versions’ll take your heart and feet. Ask the swaying throng who grooved to last Friday’s Toronto set at The Phoenix (April 27). The Drums deal in pulse-racing post-punk with melodic spangles and dramatic peaks. Now that they can play them too they may as well start wearing capes and tights.

Not to get persnickety about it, but The Drums have made the jump in part because Pierce and running mate Jacob Graham have filled the batting order with better players who’ve never contributed to those spindly recordings. Connor Hanwick’s touring Japan with g-f Peggy Wang’s The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and I dunno where his head’s at, Drums-wise. The current team, which includes Myles Matheny of Violens, is accomplished and fluid. I really like Matheny here, switching between guitar and bass, providing clever and crucial backing vocals. Given how essential vocal stacking is to Pierce’s songs, a strong second singer with falsetto range is spun gold. My issue with present-day male indie singers is mumbled lyrics low in the mix. With Matheny’s support, Pierce’s emergence as a quality stage singer is a major step forward for The Drums.

That hammy croon, which worked brilliantly exactly once but vexed me every other time, is nowhere to be heard. Slow tunes (“The Future,” “Down By The Water”) and spiky singles (the brilliant, frantic “Money,” “Me And The Moon”) alike soared without the fretful spectre of an indie kid absorbing a beatdown from his own song arrangements at every corner.

This iteration’s sculpted professionalism afforded all sorts of winning moments, often in powerful codas (dark tension in “If He Likes It Let Him Do It,” propulsive thrust in “Days,” encore-quality incandescence in “Me And The Moon”), but also in picking up the relative slack in the good-but-not-great Portamento’s song stock. The Drums might one day match the debut LP’s wondrous first side, but while we’re waiting on that it’s encouraging to hear the newer tunes taken to their aesthetic best-possible extreme. The result, spread across 62 minutes and 15 songs (seven drawn from The Drums, eight from ‘Mento) left the crowd thoroughly satisfied and uncharacteristically loud, at least for an indie club crowd ‘round these parts. We even had a crowd surfer at one point.

A more typical Toronto reserve blanketed Craft Spells’ earlier set. Idle Labor is a really nice record – #9 on my 2011 year-end – and the San Fran band’s Factory/Magnetic Fields dream pop is an ideal match for a Drums audience, but the vibe felt like a blind date, both artist and fan holding back a little, despite Spells playing Toronto twice before.

Spells’ half-dozen Labor songs stuck to the recorded blueprint, which probably provides a pretty good reference point for the three tunes from the imminent Gallery EP. It appears these’ll be more rhythmically assertive, with pounding toms to the fore. Singer Justin Vallesteros still affects a fine Ian Curtis-lite baritone but I hope he’s raised the level on his vocs a couple tics. (He’s one of those guys, see.) Anyway, established blog faves like “After The Moment” and “You Should Open The Door” sparked recognition from the crowd, and seemed to help shift a few units at the merch table at night’s end.

Last year, in the wake of rifts, defections and a glum second album I wondered whether The Drums were long for this world. And it mightn’t’ve bothered me if they’d gone kaput. Now it would. I’m not sure who’s temping and who’s permanent, but this is certainly the right time to catch The Drums in concert.

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